College campuses find themselves in a battle over the scope of free inquiry and debate. Its resolution is far from clear, but its implications will likely extend far beyond the ivory tower. The stakes are high. If universities turn against intellectual freedom, we will not only lose much of the good that universities can contribute to American society and to the world more broadly; we will also strengthen the forces working to weaken protections for free speech under the First Amendment.
Princeton University is on the front lines. In 2015, its faculty made Princeton the second institution to adopt the University of Chicago’s statement reaffirming the importance of free expression to the intellectual climate on university campuses. We, like the leadership of the University of Chicago, thought that reaffirming these principles was primarily important in helping to shape the national debate and bolster colleagues at other institutions where free speech was under greater threat.
We were too optimistic—in part because a surprisingly small number of universities have been willing to follow our lead and reaffirm the core purpose of institutions of higher education as places of free and open intellectual debate. University presidents are unwilling to do what Princeton’s president did and integrate a discussion of campus free-speech principles into the orientation of first-year students and emphasize to faculty and students the importance of tolerating—and engaging with—diverse views. And university faculties are unwilling to do what Princeton’s did and declare the importance of guaranteeing to “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” Such principles have become so controversial that the faculty at most American colleges are hesitant to endorse them openly.
We were also overly optimistic about the situation at Princeton itself. The faculty were willing to write a commitment to academic freedom into the university’s governing documents in 2015—but now, in 2020, they are being asked to carve out a substantial exception to that principle.
In the wake of the protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some faculty published an open letter of demands to overcome “anti-Blackness racism” at Princeton. Like many such letters, it included good and bad proposals. Most distinctive and disturbing, however, was the demand for the creation of a faculty committee empowered to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of the faculty.”
Make no mistake: this is a proposal to create a loophole in academic freedom through which one could drive a truck. As one of the authors of the letter subsequently explained, “anti-Black research” should be regarded as a form of research misconduct—like, say, falsifying data—and treated as “unethical,” since it could presumptively do harm to “communities of color.” This new directive does not target the kind of behavior already excluded from the protections of academic freedom—it does not limit itself to instances of a researcher falsifying results or a teacher harassing a student or yelling racial slurs at a colleague. It is not even limited to overheated political hyperbole that a professor might resort to on social media. It targets, rather, the substantive content of scholarly teaching and research, and—if a committee of faculty believe it to be antithetical to the political interests of favored racial groups—declares it to be evidence of misconduct and thus beyond the protections of academic freedom.
Given today’s expansive and nebulous scope of what might qualify as “racist,” it’s not hard to imagine such a broad exception to academic freedom being used to remove professors who find themselves on the wrong side of this committee of public safety. Any number of legitimate but controversial questions of scholarly interest could run afoul of such an exception to academic freedom, even if everyone involved was acting in good faith. On matters related to race, the proposal advises scholars not to follow evidence wherever it may lead but rather to question whether the evidence serves the desired political narrative. Substandard or unprofessional research and teaching are in most cases already subject to sanction by universities—but asking an interdisciplinary committee to evaluate whether research in specialized fields of study is professionally incompetent invites politicized investigations.
With such a committee in place, can a scholar confidently publish the results of her work on, say, the constitutionality of hate speech or the policy merits of affirmative action or slavery reparations? Can we do unbiased empirical work on the causes of crime or poverty? Can we fairly investigate the causes of racial differences in the outcomes of medical treatment or public health problems? Can we even engage in serious literary criticism of “Huckleberry Finn” or “Othello,” or debate what ought to be included in the literary canon, or through creative writing examine the personal experience of race?
Of course, any given piece of research on such topics might be flawed or wrong. If so, it should be criticized and refuted by additional research or ignored as idiosyncratic and an intellectual dead-end. If we instead treat research that reaches conclusions that we find distressing as a reason to sanction the researcher, we will severely truncate the scope of scholarly debate. Some questions will become off limits and some arguments will be censored because they might raise politically unpalatable truths and because they might subject the researcher, not merely to withering criticism, but to termination and banishment.
My colleagues would be aghast if I were to propose forming a faculty committee to investigate and discipline un-American behaviors, incidents, research, and publications on the part of the faculty. They would recognize that such a standard is politically pliable, and that individuals standing on different ends of the ideological spectrum would come to different conclusions about what kind of scholarship poses such threats. They would fear what such a committee might do, and they would recognize how chilling an effect on scholarly inquiry the threat of such investigations might have. They would also know that putting such political limits on academic freedom subverts the mission of universities as places that foster the fearless pursuit of the truth—no matter how troubling the truth might be.
Strangely, we have even circled back to loyalty oaths in academia. In the first decades of the 20th century, professors resisted the efforts of politicians and trustees to require that state university instructors sign pledges that they not make any seditious utterances or advocate any doctrine that promoted the overthrow of the government. Courts eventually struck down such pledges as inconsistent with the First Amendment and the proper functioning of a university.
Yet campus administrators are starting to insist that faculty take a new set of pledges.
At Auburn, university officials had to walk back the suggestion that an instructor could be fired for social media posts inconsistent with the “Auburn Creed,” which includes statements of belief in “obedience to law” and belief in “my country.” Ohio State demanded that faculty sign a “Buckeyes Pledge” that included an affirmation that professors embraced “diversity in people and ideas” and the importance of “collaboration and multidisciplinary endeavors.” The University of Southern Maine asked all faculty to take an “antiracism pledge” and affirm the words of Ibram Kendi, author of “How to Be an Anti-Racist.”
Academics like to tell politicians and donors not to impose political litmus tests on acceptable scholarly research, but they should take care that they not institute litmus tests of their own. Imposing such limits on scholarly research, no matter how well-intentioned—and no matter how unpopular the target—puts unhealthy constraints on freedom of thought. These limitations hamper us as we work our way toward the truth, and they give tools to the powerful to silence the marginalized. We should be asking scholars to put forward the best arguments and evidence that they can for the claims that they think are true, and we should expect the scholarly community to be willing to hear and evaluate those arguments.
If we ask anything else, we will get more cautious and timid scholarship, and we will be more often saddled with conventional wisdom that cannot be critically examined. If universities cannot be a refuge for dissenters, heretics, and gadflies willing to go against the grain by discomfiting those around them, then it’s worth asking what universities are for.